Until recent years, peculiarly British forms of social snobbery persisted in post-colonial life. Among the most unpleasant varieties were those associated with how one earned a living in the pre-meritocratic age.
In this regard, caste distinctions were especially acute within the mercantile world.
The crucial difference between commerce and trade, social arbiters maintained, was that a man who worked in the former sat at a desk in an office and traded nails by the shipload while the latter stood in his shirtsleeves at a shop counter and sold the same product by the pound.
Commerce was acceptable – especially if it was profitable – while trade was always somehow a bit infra dig; those who started out in life that way were never quite allowed to forget it, however wealthy and influential they might become.
But for the convenience of categorisation, those who worked in commerce and trade were bracketed together across Asia by an overarching term unknown anywhere else: boxwallah. This once generic, now largely forgotten Anglo-Indian designation was applied to businessmen, general traders and merchants.
Live the history of Hong Kong, how it grew from colonial opium trading outpost to global finance mecca
As a European caste marker in the colonies, the boxwallah was socially distinct from civil administrators or members of the armed services, and was unquestionably considered to be socially inferior by both groups.
The term derived from the itinerant pedlars found across Asia who conducted their business out of a couple of tin boxes, or cloth-baled bundles, trussed up and transported on bamboo carrying poles slung over the shoulders.
From this portable “shop”, consumer items were hawked door-to-door through the streets. Numerous period memoirs describe the incredible array of handy items that could be spread out across the floor of a back veranda for purchase. Thus, by extension, a “boxwallah” was someone who peddled goods for a living; whether in commerce or trade did not particularly matter.
Colonial privilege, academic freedom and chicken feet: reflections of a British veteran HKU professor
Unlike many lexical borrowings from elsewhere in Asia – amah, nullah, pidgin and tiffin come to mind – the boxwallah label didn’t really transport to the China coast. The term never acquired the pejorative social pigeon-hole in Hong Kong that it connoted in India.
The main reason for this was that, to a greater or lesser degree, most of colonial Hong Kong’s resident European community actually were boxwallahs. As in the other great Asian commercial cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Singapore and Shanghai, their numbers far outweighed any resident officer class, but European society here was smaller, too, and more interlinked, and the subtle (and more blatant) forms of social exclusion that applied in bigger places were harder to achieve.
Nevertheless, as various disappointed social climbers found to their cost, discrimination based on employment status still occurred. Those in government service or the armed forces tended to look down on the commercial community, and regarded the open pursuit of money as excruciatingly boorish. And to a marked extent, it was; Hong Kong, then as now, revelled in its commercial avarice and ostentatious vulgarity, constant talk of money, its making and its spending dominating social gatherings.
Hong Kong’s official contingent didn’t mix much with those in trade and commerce if they could help it. Disdain went both ways; officials were considered unimportant by the commercial sector. According to an old Hong Kong saying, the colony was really run by Jardine Matheson, Butterfield & Swire, the Jockey Club and the governor – in that order. And like all amusing local platitudes, some truth resided in this endlessly harped-on trope.